PCC hopes papers will follow guidance on prominent apologies

The PCC has today released its guidance on the prominence of online apologies and critical adjudications in relation to newspapers and magazines.

This has long been a much debated and equally derided topic with many complainants (and their lawyers) feeling outraged that a front page splash which turned out to be wrong was only met with a small apology buried deep in a newspaper on into a website.
We'll start off by giving the PCC its say about the new guidance before we look at some of what's gone before...

The new guidance:

This tackles a series of practical points that editors should take into account when considering the prominence of online corrections and apologies - such as giving consideration to linking back to the original article, the length of time that the correction or apology should remain online, tagging, and the amendment of URLs if necessary. The guidance also looks at publication of upheld adjudications issued by the PCC.

In its Guidance Note the PCC sets out what it considers to be pointers as to giving "Due Prominence" to an apology or correction - these are:
"•Negotiation is a key part of the PCC process, and discussion between complainant, editor and PCC will be necessary in the placement of online - as offline - corrections and apologies. Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code states: "in cases involving the Commission, prominence should be agreed with the PCC in advance".
•Readers will access information on newspaper and magazine websites via different means (such as searches or links), so there is not automatically a correlation between the original location of an article and the placement of a correction or apology. The existence of a paywall may impact on how a site is initially accessed, and this should be taken into account. However, for stand-alone corrections and apologies, editors should give consideration to appropriate placement on the relevant section where the original article appeared (such as the "news" or "showbusiness" section, for example).
•If the resolution to a complaint is a stand-alone text (an apology, correction or letter), it will generally be appropriate to link to the original article under complaint (should it still be published online) and for the original article to link back to it. If the original article has been removed, then how long the apology, correction or letter should remain online should be the subject of negotiation with the PCC.
•Corrections or apologies that appear on the original article should be clearly marked.
•If the outcome of a complaint is that the text of the article is significantly amended, then consideration should be given to the publication making explicit reference to the existence of the alteration. How quickly the text has been amended will be a factor in this consideration.
•Care must be taken that the URL of an article does not contain information that has been the subject of successful complaint. If an article is amended, then steps should be taken to amend the URL, as necessary.
•Online corrections and apologies should be tagged when published to ensure that they are searchable."

In relation to publishing with due prominence the outcome of adjudications the new guidlines provide:
"•As with corrections and apologies, consideration must be given to the adjudication appearing in the relevant section of the website. This can be discussed in advance with the PCC.
•If an article has been found to be in breach of the Code by the PCC, it should either be removed from the archive and replaced by the adjudication, or a link to the upheld adjudication should be prominently displayed on the article itself. This can be discussed in advance with the PCC.
•The adjudication, when published, should be tagged to ensure that it is searchable."

Research conducted by the PCC and displayed in its annual report for 2009 shows that in 2009, 84% of PCC-negotiated corrections and apologies appear on the same page or further forward - or on a dedicated corrections column - as the original transgression. So far so good but while these statistics might be encouraging in relation to where the correction and apologies appear, they do not measure the extent to which they were 'duly prominent' on their respective pages.

Lets look at what's really been happening

Example 1 - Peaches Geldof

The Star splashed its front page with 'Peaches: spend night with me for £5,000'- this clearly suggested she was offering sex for money BUT when one got to the actual article it merely asserted that she was receiving fees to attend celebrity events.
The PCC adjudicated on the case and described the misleading headline as 'sloppy journalism'. The paper didn't agree to publish a prominent retraction - i.e. on the front page so Peaches sued and it took a libel action for the Star to apologise in the High Court and agreed to pay costs and substantial damages.

Example 2 - Geri Halliwell

Geri Halliwell is among the few to have secured a truly duly prominent apology - this time the Daily Star probably considered the wider implications of enraging the former Spice Girl (given the paper's owner was a fan of that band) - it produced a wonderfully grovelling full front page apology. Though the paper didn't just get away with that, it also had to pay out a five figure damages amount to Halliwell.

Example 3 - Kate and Gerry McCann

The Press stooped to collective new lows in their blaket coverage of the plight of Kate and Gerry McCann who among others eventuall sued Express Group for libel in relation to 110 articles which appeared in the Daily Express, the Daily Star, the Sunday Express and the Star on Sunday between September 2007 and February 2008 - in August of 2007 there was seldom a day when The Express did not run a McCann story on their front page. Their lawyer told the High Court: "The general theme of the articles was to suggest that Mr and Mrs McCann were responsible for the death of Madeleine or that there were strong or reasonable grounds for so suspecting and that they had then disposed of her body; and that they had then conspired to cover up their actions, including by creating 'diversions' to divert the police's attention away from evidence which would expose their guilt [. . . ] Many of these articles were published on the front page of the newspapers and on their websites, accompanied by sensationalist headlines."

Express Group Newspapers finally apologised for publishing "extremely serious, yet baseless, allegations and agreed to pay a reported £550,000 in damages to the Madeleine Fund (set up to publicise and fund the search for Madeleine McCann). Following the apology and statement of regret in open court, the Daily Express, Daily Star, Sunday Express and Sunday Star also published front page apologies to the McCanns.

Other cases

The Mail on Sunday apologised to the actress Brooke Shields in 1998 after wrongly reprting that she had been searched for drugs at an airport. In 2001 the Sunday People published nude shots of Radio DJ Sara Cox on holiday with her husband. The paper issued a three paragraph apology a week or so later but proceeded to sue the paper and finally won a significant privacy win in June 2003.

So it is to be hoped that the PCC's guidance will help pave the way for acceptable corrections and apologies but Mediabeak says don't be fooled, a mere apology is not going to make the lawsuits go away and if anything is more likely to be something that is part of the wider settlements negotiated pre-court or ordered in court.

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